I Like to Watch

Therapy time! You're going to need a little dose of the talking cure to replace those outdated sitcoms -- or even good ones like "That '70s Show" -- with modern upgrades like "The Office."

Published January 29, 2006 11:57AM (EST)

I have to level with you this week, chickens: You need therapy. I'm sorry to be the one to say it, but you're reaching a breaking point and it would be irresponsible for me to stand by and watch your life fall to pieces. It's obvious that you need professional help; it's as plain as the nose on your dysfunctional face.

Luckily for you, I happen to be a therapist. Of course, I don't have an actual advanced degree in clinical psychology, but I did major in psychology in college, and I could probably tell you which stage of development you're currently in, in Eriksonian terms, if I did the reading in my developmental psychology class, which I didn't. True, technically, I'm not clinically trained, but I've been dispensing free, bad advice for several years now, and not one of my clients has sued me yet. If that's not the definition of a successful therapy practice, I don't know what is.

Here's what concerns me the most about your current state: You seem rudderless. Meaning, if your life were a boat, that boat would have no rudder. The rudder is the part of the boat that points the boat in the right direction. You're missing a rudder. Also, your skin looks ruddy. Ruddy skin is a sure sign of depression. You're not eating anything green these days, are you? Yes, I can tell. You know you're depressed when all you do is eat starch and cheese and watch "Law & Order" reruns.

Speaking of which, your viewing habits concern me greatly. It seems like you can't get into any of the new shows, you're too stuck in the past. In fact, a little bird told me that you actually cried when you found out that "The West Wing" was going off the air.

He also told me that you pee in the shower. You're gross!

Come into my office
That sense of shame you're feeling right now is totally healthy, so lean into it. Leeeean into it, chickens. Feel the burn of hot shame on your face. Remember, it's all right to feel things, just as long as no one ever sees you doing it.

Once the shame subsides -- don't rush it! -- let's examine some of the reasons you aren't watching NBC's "The Office" (9:30 p.m. Thursdays), which was just renewed for another season. First, you were very attached to the BBC version of "The Office." Hey, who wasn't? I totally get it. Second, you spend Thursday nights watching "The OC." That's completely understandable, even though your hesitancy to get a second cable feed and a TiVo with two inputs and a high-definition TV with Surround Sound and a decent sound system completely stuns and confounds me, and leads me to believe you're not only impractical, but a wee bit immature as well. Nevertheless, you love "The OC." I get it.

Third, you're suspicious of anything on NBC these days, since everyone says that NBC is the lamest network of all. You're a follower, after all, and if everyone is kicking NBC while it's down, well, you're going to be right there kicking along with them. Fine.

Fourth, you caught the first few episodes of "The Office," and they were almost exactly the same as the first few episodes of the BBC version of the show, only worse. Why would they do that? What is wrong with them?

Fifth, you don't think Steven Carell can hold a candle to Ricky Gervais, even though you haven't seen much of Carell in action, to be honest. You just love Ricky Gervais. Fair enough.

So you have your reasons, and let me make it crystal clear that I totally understand. Although I can't really relate to being a pathetic follower type with an inadequate home entertainment system, I do feel for you, sort of, or I would if I got really drunk and then concentrated really, really hard on how sad and empty your life is. But here's the thing: The NBC version of "The Office" is becoming damn good. Carell does a great job of embodying the charmless, aging dork who has no taste, no friends, no boundaries, no life outside of work, and no notion of what a loser he is. Michael is the guy who goes to Hooters for an office lunch with an underling, then flirts shamelessly with the waitress -- who's obviously disgusted, but of course Michael doesn't notice. Then he pretends it's Jim's (John Krasinski) birthday so the Hooters waitresses have to do the bouncing booby birthday dance. (Have you ever seen this dance? It'll make you feel damn proud to be an American and totally mortified to be an American, at the exact same time.)

I also loved the episode where Michael was attending an acting improv class. In every improvised scene, he would ignore whatever the other students were already doing, and would mime busting in the door, pointing a gun at the other students, and saying: "Boom! Detective Michael Scott! I'm with the FBI!"

And then there are Michael's somewhat ruddy and rudderless underlings at the office, who fill up their days with mindless gossip and empty distractions, like pulling pranks on each other or creating the "office Olympics." The dialogue always falls somewhere between oddly realistic and totally absurd, but it works. Take the scene where Pam (Jenna Fischer) suspects that creepy Dwight (Rainn Wilson) is seeing a co-worker Pam dislikes intensely. After spending her day trying to track down clues of the relationship, she tries out a hypothetical exercise on Dwight:

Pam: Hey, Dwight? Um, my friend is kinda into these two girls that he works with.

Dwight: Nice!

Pam: One of them is tall and brunet, and the other one is short and blond and perky and ... kinda judgmental. Who do you think he should choose?

Dwight: Does he have access to their medical records?

Instead of following the BBC version of the show around like a lost child, the show's creators (including Gervais, a producer on the show) sets out to capture the oddities and quirks of the most repressed, compromised sorts of American working stiffs. You get glimpses of their spirits -- Jim and Pam are obviously sweet and funny -- but it's clear that they'll censor themselves endlessly instead of rocking the boat, staying at the same dead-end jobs and choosing the path of least resistance until they're old and full of regrets.

Hey, that kind of reminds me of you, now that I think about it! No, look, don't get up from the couch. You have your reasons for being totally lame and not watching "The Office," reasons I totally understand and empathize with. See how I'm repeating your feelings back to you? Don't you feel validated, reflected, seen?

That's good, because I do see you. I see that you're a picky stick-in-the-mud who never wants to try anything new, including trying not to pee in the shower for once.

Nearly departed
That's right, I see right through you. How does it feel to be utterly transparent? Does it make you feel vulnerable, naked, alone? Well, you should feel that way, since you're helplessly floating on the tides of fate, with no more influence over your life than a wine cork floating on the high seas.

Ah, I see a glimmer! You're feeling a little bit vulnerable, aren't you? That's good -- leeeean into it, chickens. The more helpless and alone you feel, the more likely you are to keep paying me to listen to your sorry little problems.

What do you mean you're not paying me and I'm not listening? See, this is one of your problems -- you're never satisfied. You have perfectly good new shows like "The Office" available for your viewing pleasure, and what do you do? You keep mourning the impending death of some of the older sitcoms left on the air, "Will & Grace" and "Malcolm in the Middle" and "That '70s Show."

OK, I agree, these are all quality shows, shows that were top of the heap in their prime. But is "Malcolm in the Middle" (7 p.m. Sundays on Fox) all that interesting for anyone other than 9-year-old boys and their parents? True, "Will & Grace" (8 p.m. Thursdays on NBC) is always good for a laugh or two, thanks to Karen (Megan Mullally) and Jack (Sean Hayes), but the show obviously devolved into fantastical foolishness a long time ago. Sometimes this lack of realism works, sometimes it's just irritating, but either way it has the cumulative effect of diminishing our investment in the characters' lives. Plus, haven't Will (Eric McCormack) and Grace (Debra Messing) sort of been grating on your nerves more and more every time you tune in for the show? OK, you're shaking your head like you don't agree, but I can tell by the way you're clenching your jaw that you do agree, deep down inside.

The one sitcom that I'm sad to see leave the air is "That '70s Show" (8 p.m. Wednesdays on Fox). I loved this show when it first came out, and it really hasn't gone downhill over the years. It's one of those sitcoms -- "Everybody Loves Raymond" is another -- that you can happily watch in syndication, because every episode is genuinely entertaining even when you don't know a thing about what the bigger picture is, story-wise. Unlike "Will & Grace," you don't have to be invested in the characters' lives to enjoy the ride.

It's tough to put your finger on the charms of "That '70s Show," but it must be some combination of nostalgia, stoner humor, idiotic clothes, and the best depiction of the generation gap since "All in the Family." The cast is amazing, good even without Topher Grace (who plays Eric) and Ashton Kutcher (who plays Kelso), both of whom left the show after last season. But the real unsung heroes are Eric's parents, Red (Kurtwood Smith) and Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp). Both Smith and Rupp have a way of making every line funny. How many parents on a show about kids do that? Normally, when the parents enter, it's a big, boring drag. Plus, what other show has done more for pot without actually admitting that it has anything to do with pot? The kids just go downstairs and sit around in a circle and act stoned, but you never see a joint. There's smoke in the air, yes. They're squinty and giggling and misunderstanding each other, sure. But where's the weed?

It's there, trust me.

I still remember a scene where Eric emerges from the basement and Red is angry at him, but all Eric can do is look at the wallpaper behind his head, which the art department somehow rigged so that the whole pattern was moving.

When you really think about it, the '70s were pretty bizarre. There were all these really grumpy parents, most of whom were raised by "the greatest generation" (see also: the stoical yet temperamental alcoholic generation). Then you had a bunch of totally insane teenagers who did whatever the hell they wanted -- rolled in the neighbor's yard, bashed in windows at the school, smoked pot, drove around in their Scooby Do vans. Their grouchy parents would freak out and beat them up occasionally, and then just ignore them for another six or seven months.

What -- why are you interrupting me? I'm really getting to the heart of something important here! See, this is one of your problems -- you're totally self-centered. You honestly expect me to put my personal growth on hold, just because you're paying me? Wow. I feel really sorry for the people who aren't paid to put up with your crap.

Red, white, black and blue

Another new show you might check out if you weren't so fearful and neurotic about novelty is "My Name Is Earl" (9 p.m. Thursdays on NBC). Starring Jason Lee as a total loser and petty thug who wants to make up for the sins of his past, "My Name Is Earl" is a one-camera comedy that's pretty well written and mildly amusing.

That said, I can't get into it. Lots of my friends love this show, but to me, the nonstop white trash jokes get old fast. When Earl's then-wife makes cola-flavored margaritas and Earl's brother wipes his nose on his sleeve and drinks canned beers until he passes out and Earl's friend gets paid to set a hot-dog stand on fire, it just isn't that funny to me. It feels like a cute Hollywood take on rednecks. I grew up around rednecks and have a certain affection for them, so when precious little Scientologists like Giovanni Ribisi and Jason Lee act like rednecks, it rubs me the wrong way.

Is this my personal prejudice? I mean, look, I'm happy to laugh at the aristocratic idiots of "Arrested Development." I enjoy poking fun at the middle-class sad sacks of "The Office." So why can't I laugh at guys who live in motel rooms and steal their friends' cars and put ketchup on their spaghetti? I guess it bugs me to think of a roomful of Ivy League grads writing jokes about rednecks based on their extensive knowledge of "The Dukes of Hazzard."

If you want to see a real redneck in action, order the "Dancing Outlaw," a documentary by Jacob Young that originally appeared on West Virginia public television. Whether Jesco White is dancing on top of a doghouse, speaking earnestly of his love for Elvis, or sniffing airplane glue, the fun never ends. Take, for example, the scene where Jesco discusses his wife's breakfast-making skills:

Jesco: I took the butcher knife and put it up to her neck. I said, "If you want to live to see tomorrow, you'd better start fryin' them eggs a little bit better than what you've been fryin' 'em. I'm tired of eatin' sloppy, slimey eggs."

Norma Jean, Jesco's wife: Jesco is the devil. He's the devil in hisself. When he is in his mood he feels no pain, he doesn't care about anybody, and the more people he can hurt, the happier he is.

Jesco: And man, I got a double, super dose. Here I was a-huffin' that airplane glue in a sandwich bag, you know just all I could, breathin' that into my lungs, gettin' high. And then I'd take me a hit of that gas, right after I hit it. Man, you talk about a warped mind, I got one!

Now that's comedy. What? You think that's sick and totally disturbing? See, you're having a negative reaction to stretching your boundaries and trying new things, that's all. Still, I can see that some strong emotions are coming up. Let's explore those emotions. Tell me exactly how you're feeling right now. Go on, open up. Let go. Let it out! You can trust me.

Tick, tock
Oh, hey, look at the clock! It seems our time is up. Yes, I know, you didn't really get to say anything this time, but look, it's a process. You have to have faith that if you keep doing the work, you're going to land in a new place eventually. A new place? You don't know what that means? It means you'll stop watching "ER" and you'll try to get into "Grey's Anatomy" and "Lost" like everyone else with any sense. It means you'll check out "The Colbert Report" and "Battlestar Galactica" like I told you to. Eventually, after years and years of intensive therapy, you'll be able to use your own feelings as a compass of what to do, but in the meantime, you'd really be better off doing exactly what I tell you to do. Got it? Look, I've got another client coming in, you really need to be going. Yes, yes, "The Shield," I know -- we'll cover that next week, I promise.

Next week: Yes, great to see you, too. Hang in there! Yes, we'll talk about "The Shield" next time, I swear. OK. Take care! Goodbye!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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I Like To Watch The Office